Plus the best dim sum restaurants in Calgary
What comes to mind when you think of Sunday brunch? Getting over a hangover at the local greasy spoon? Mimosas with the girls at a trendy bistro? For people in Hong Kong and southern China, as well as many in Calgary’s Chinese community, Sunday brunch means something completely different – banquet halls filled with large and loud families, and stacks of bamboo baskets with steamed goodies inside. Yes, I’m talking about dim sum.
Though the characters “dim sum”, pronounced dianxin (“dian sheen”) in Mandarin, do literally translate to “a touch of the heart”, Carolyn Phillips explains in Lucky Peach’s popular “The Essential Guide to Dim Sum” that it really just means a small snack or “a little something to eat”.
“Around the year 1300, dianxin turned into a noun that referred to snacks and very light meals, a definition that has more or less remained unchanged to this day,” she writes. “In the entry for dianxin in every authoritative Chinese dictionary, this always appears as a complete term that cannot be reduced and thus defined according to its individual characters.”
Of course, dim sum is no longer a small snack, as many dim sum-induced food babies can attest. Cantonese people actually refer to going out for dim sum as going to “yum cha”, which literally translates to “drinking tea”. This not only harkens back to dim sum’s roots in teahouses in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou, but also because tea remains a big part of the meal. While some of you may have only experienced servers plopping a pot of jasmine tea at your table, dim sum restaurants actually offer a choice of teas, from Pu’erh, a rich black tea now becoming known for its antioxidant properties, to Shoumei, a stronger white tea that tastes more like an oolong. Interestingly, “yum cha” is the preferred term for dim sum in Australia and New Zealand.
Whatever continent you’re on, the dim sum experience will be similar. Most operate on a first come, first served basis, and some people argue that getting there early to “ba wai” (literally, “take over a spot”) is part of the experience. It’s not uncommon for one person to be waiting for a table for three generations of family members, because the more people going for dim sum, the more variety you can order and eat!
Once you are escorted to your table, you can choose what type of tea you’d like. Occasionally there will be small complimentary snacks, like peanuts or pickles. In Hong Kong, many restaurants will add a charge per head for the tea and snacks, but most Calgary restaurants are not that “business-savvy”. Yet.
Now, it’s time to eat. Traditionally, the food rolls by your table on heated metal carts loaded with bamboo baskets pushed by Chinese aunties, hawking their wares repeatedly in one breath like a well-rehearsed tongue twister.
Often the carts are categorized by type of food, loosely timed with the different seatings. The first carts are usually small steamed dim sum, like har gow (shrimp dumplings), shiu mai (pork dumplings) and beef balls, plates of cheong fun (rice crepes filled with beef, barbecued pork or shrimp), or meats like steamed pork spareribs, beef tripe, and of course, the infamous chicken feet.
Next up are the heavier, starchy dishes – steamed rice wrapped in a lotus leaf, congee topped with scallions, fried garlic and peanuts, and stir-fried noodles. Steamed buns, both savoury and sweet, are available, like the popular char siu bao (barbecued pork bun) and egg custard bun.
Then come the unheated carts, with freshly fried foods like spring rolls, pan-fried turnip cake and stuffed peppers. And of course, dessert. Egg tarts, mango pudding and water chestnut cake are popular, but my favourite was always the tofu custard, which was scooped out of a giant wooden barrel and topped with a thin ginger syrup.
Sadly, this has largely become nostalgia as most dim sum restaurants have moved to Scantron-style ordering sheets. Not only does this help decrease food waste as well as labour and equipment costs, customers like it too as they are guaranteed to get what they want. Fresh and hot to boot!
Finally, the bill. In the past, each dim sum was categorized as a small, medium, large or special item, making it easy for the cart ladies to just initial or stamp a card based on what you ordered. Now that most dim sum is ordered with a sheet, pricing varies more between items. At most restaurants, payment is at the cashier at the front, so drag your full belly over there and don’t forget to tip before enjoying the rest of your weekend.
Top Dim Sum Restaurants in Calgary
U & Me
Known to most as the place for post-clubbing eats, U & Me serves some of the best dim sum in the city during the day. The Shanghai steamed pork dumplings and turnip cake fried in XO sauce are must-tries.
223 Centre Street S, 403-264-5988, uandmerestaurant.ca
Forbidden City and T. Pot China Bistro
Both restaurants are owned by the Taste of Asia group, thus the menus are quite similar. Reservations are not available unless you have an exceptionally large (10+) group, but the wait is worth it.
Forbidden City – 999 36 Street NE, 403-250-1848
T. Pot China Bistro – 100 – 9650 Harvest Hills Boulevard NE, 403-532-3982
Located on the second floor of New Asia mall just off of Centre St and 16 Ave, Central Grand is one of the few dim sum restaurants that still has dim sum carts, but diners are encouraged to order specific items from waiters as well.
1623 Centre Street N, 403-277-2000